It was only last week I was reviewing a new take on the Dracula myth, The Last Voyage of the Demeter. Deeper into both the dog days of August and the realms of video on demand comes Birth/Rebirth, a modern retelling (of sorts) of Mary Shelley’s timeless science-fiction horror tale. This (thankfully far superior) film is set in a modern New York so soulless and drab that viewers will be bound to get more frights from the realization of how deadening life in the 2020s can sometimes feel than any requisite veers into the macabre.
Likely a film that some will find underwhelming due to its lowkey, mostly affectless style, it’s a rather impressive feat of narrative economy that manages to separate itself from the seemingly endless indie horror crop. Directed by Laura Moss, there’s the sense they either don’t have much of a feel for the genre or rather harbors a general disdain for the shorthands it’s fallen into (hopefully they don’t get absorbed into bad studio product soon), the film’s tendencies refreshingly feel free of the trappings of calling-card cinema.
The grim proceeding begin when we hone in on a morgue technician, Rose (Marin Ireland, whose curt line deliveries center the unfriendly tone of the whole film). Her isolated activities include collecting the sperm of a barfly loser and strangely tending to the body of a pig in her apartment. Working at the same hospital is maternity nurse and single mother Celie (Judy Reyes), who has her hands full between the responsibilities of work and her young daughter––until the child’s sudden, tragic death while Celie is away at a night shift. When the body somehow goes missing from the morgue, Celie finds her daughter in Rose’s apartment, hooked up to medical equipment. Rose promises she can successfully bring her back to life as the rather mid-level employee experiences a strange bit of hubris or maybe mental illness seeing herself as an (ahem) American Prometheus. Of course, the requirements for what it’ll take to resurrect the girl will certainly escalate to grisly heights.
Perhaps it’s too much of a risk on the script’s end to present a storytelling ellipsis-of-sorts where Celie has no doubts about Rose’s project and they become instant friends, but the actors sell it. As Ireland’s off-putting presence defines the film, so does Reyes’ measured performance that resorts to no fireworks of any kind, despite her character’s tragic circumstances. The lack of sentimentality (or humor) presents something of a rupture for the genre of late. So stripped of emotion there’s no place for “it’s about grief and/or trauma” to really emerge and dominate, the film efficiently plugs along from one event to the next despite stripped-down, slow-burn appearances.
Notwithstanding the impressively mean-spirited climax being a tad too telegraphed (as is what will happen to Rose’s pig), you come away from it still disturbed. The unease Birth/Rebirth attains is not from shoving ominous music and boringly precise demo-reel compositions down your throat, but the genuine strength of its ideas. One will be left with a genuinely grim feeling about bringing a child into the world and all its implications. As someone feeling rather down on the modern horror film, I was strangely delighted to find one that could get under my skin.
Birth/Rebirth is now in theaters.